Politics was once a subject that could get a comedian shut down by police or censors in Zimbabwe. Now, however, political satire is making a comeback, and government officials say that is fine, within limits.
HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Political satire is creeping back into vogue in Zimbabwe.
In May 2016, Zimbabwean comedy group Bustop TV released a skit on social media in which a woman selling Zimbabwean flags shows off how flag sales have skyrocketed, indicating how proud everyone is of their country. The show’s video release coincided with an online campaign titled #thisflag, in which citizens posted images of themselves unfolding the flag while expressing discontent with social and economic issues, such as the difficulties of paying school fees.
In October, Magamba TV, which produces the satirical news program Zambezi News, released a video on social media referencing a new local currency the government was about to introduce. The skit shows a parody of a reporter pretending to be on location at a bond note-printing center. He interviews a printer detailing how the ink is applied and currency notes produced — on toilet paper.
Comedy featuring political commentary is on the rise in Zimbabwe. Comedian Carl Joshua Ncube says he stayed away from incorporating political content in his skits back in 2011. Some other comedians’ shows that touched on politics had been shut down by police and the censorship board and he says he didn’t want any trouble. But he found that not addressing political issues through his work sent a message in itself.
“Being apolitical was kind of political in a way, because it was showing that I am constrained by the environment I’m in,” Ncube says.
Six years later, Ncube noted the shift that had occurred in comedy and political satire in particular. He and others have found a way to include politics in their shows by “making fun of what they [politicians] do and not who they are.”
Film and theater director Elton Mjanana agrees that some ways are better than others to touch upon politics in comedy. Packaging political satire in a movie is safer, for instance, because that way a character is being portrayed, and it is difficult to arrest a fictional character, he says.
Tatenda Kanengoni, GPJ Zimbabwe
Social media also contributes to the shift and has allowed people to feel more comfortable in expressing themselves politically in comedy, Mjanana says. But he warns that social media also can offer a false sense of safety, as he says it’s likely that officials monitor online activity.
Social media “lessened the fear factor, but it’s still there, the Big Brother attitude from the establishment,” he says.
The Big Brother attitude, perhaps, is what inspired Harare city council members on March 9 to threaten to demolish the arts center housing the Magamba TV group that produces the Zambezi News.
The city council said the structure, made partially from shipping containers, is illegal, but the center’s management says that the council approved it and that it has documents to prove it. Harare’s mayor has intervened to halt the demolition. An online campaign to save the center — #SaveMotoRepublik, has begun and Saviour Kasukuwere, minister of local government, public works and national housing, on March 13 posted a message of support on his Facebook page: “Govt won’t allow its closure. Important center for youth employment and creativity.”
Magamba TV co-founder Samm Farai Monro, better known as Comrade Fatso, says Zambezi News was created to incorporate political satire in 2011, the year it began distributing its own DVDs. The first episode of Zambezi News, in fact, made fun of government delegates traveling overseas. It poked fun by showing them with outrageous entourages, including household help and animals.
Such early forays were “a necessary risk to take if you’re going to make a difference, if you’re going to make a change,” Monro says.
As more comedy skits were distributed online, and Zambezi News got away with addressing politics lightly, other comedians began tiptoeing into political satire too.
Tatenda Kanengoni, GPJ Zimbabwe
“The strength in speaking truth to power is one person starts doing it and others are like, ‘We can do it too.’ Then it becomes the norm,” Monro says.
Godknows Homwe, co-founder of Bustop TV, explains that the main goal behind starting Bustop comedy was to entertain. But he notes that the idea also was to evoke conversation among audiences and engage authorities in dialogue.
“Apart from the skits, what’s very important to us is the conversation,” Homwe says.
Privilege Musvanhiri, a journalist who has covered the impact of social media, believes that while political satire informs and makes people more conscious of political issues, it doesn’t necessarily bring change.
One Bustop TV skit, for instance, drew congratulations from the Minister of Youth, Indigenization and Economic Empowerment for addressing the issue of broken bridges in high-density areas. Despite this reaction, there was no follow-through on the issue, Homwe says.
Filmmaker Rumbi Katedza says political satire always existed in Zimbabwe, but with social media it can spread faster and to a larger audience.
“The difference right now is in the internet and accessibility to the internet. People have always spoken about these things — political theater is not a new thing,” she says. Now, though, “it’s more accessible and more direct,” she adds.
Paul Bayethe Damasane, principal director for arts, culture and heritage in Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Rural Development, Promotion and Preservation of National Culture and Heritage, says currently no policy exists to manage satirical content online in Zimbabwe. In fact, under Zimbabwe’s understanding of the 2005 UNESCO convention, diversity of cultural expression, which can include comedy, is accepted and even promoted.
He says political satire can be deemed “problematic when it is used to achieve a political end, to promote propaganda and not merely expression of the status quo.”
What cannot be condoned, Damasane says, is any comedic content “lampooning” the head of state, who must protect and uphold the nation’s constitution. Currently, he says, no policy to censor comedic content online exists. However, that policy would change should making fun of the president online become an issue, he notes.
“It is not problematic,” Damasane says, “when the objective is just to say, ‘This is reality. Let’s laugh about it.’ ”